'Her World Exploded'

From djdaneh@pbhyc.PacBell.COM (Dan'l DanehyOakes)
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written
Subject: SF History (was Re: Oldest Published Novelist)
Date: Wed, 16 Nov 1994 17:38:19 GMT

Evelyn Leeper wrote:

> I would say Dante and Milton were writing fantasy, or at most
> speculative fiction.  Shelley (IMHO) was the first major author to use
> science as a basis.  (One can argue about Cyrano de Bergerac and
> Swift.)  Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, but I think it can be said
> that Shelley is who many (most?) people think of as the "first science
> fiction writer."

With all due respect to Evelyn, the idea that Frankenstein (or Empires of the Sun and Moon or Gulliver ) is in any way science fiction is, in my opinion, the result of a rather simplistic view of "what science fiction is."

Science fiction is not defined by content. (There is no need to have any real scientific content to produce what nearly anyone will recognize as "science fiction.") The ever-annoying counterexample, Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith , though just about anyone will agree it is not SF, will slip by any content-based that isn't so convoluted and/or complex as to be unusable.

An interesting sidelight, which finally convinced me of what I'm about to present, is the Locus awards ballot from -- oh, shucks; I guess it's over a decade ago now. Two books were on the list: Lord Valentine's Castle , and one of Gene Wolfe's New Sun books (the first?). One was listed on the "fantasy" ballot, and one on the "science fiction" ballot: and there were no screams of protest, from authors or from fans, about this classification. Yet both, in terms of pure content , are SF. (Both are set on worlds whose relationship to ours, in our universe, is well-defined; in both, the apparent "magic" is always explicable by some scientific mumbo-jumbo -- though in the case of New Sun it often takes quite a lot of careful interlinear reading to find the mumbo-jumbo; etc.)

What's the difference?

Simply: one can be read more interestingly as SF, and the other can be read more interestingly as fantasy. (And neither reads at all well as MF*, or poetry, or history...)

[*MF -- mundane/mainstream/mimetic fiction]

Delany has proposed (in some of the essays in Starboard Wine [1984]) that the difference between genres is not content, but what he calls "reading protocols," the techniques a skilled reader brings to a text to unpack "meaning" from it. Delany uses as his classic examples phrases like "I turned on my left side," and "Her world exploded," which have entirely different meanings in an SF novel from any other type.

Why do they mean differently? Because the reader brings different expectations to an SF text, because they ask different questions of an SF text, than they would of an MF (poetry, history... ) text. If an MF text began with the sentence, "Her world exploded," the reader would ask questions like: what terrible emotional catastrophe has she experienced? Why is she so upset? If an SF text began with the same sentence, the SF reader would ask: "What planet is it? Is it 'hers' because she lives there, or because she owns it? Why did it explode?"

Different ways of reading. Different questions brought to the text.

Another classic example would be a sentence like "I spent a demimonth working as an oretracer in the monopole mines through the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni."

A non-reader of SF, faced with that sentence, is going to be completely without a clue, not only because of unfamiliar words (Demimonth? Monopole? Oretracer?) but also because, even if the words themselves all made sense, the non-SF reader has no idea how to put them together and begin building the sociological (it is a world where a person can spend a demimonth as an oretracer), technological (it is a world in which asteroid belts are mined), economic (it is a world in which monopole ores are in sufficient demand to be worth mining), and physical (it is a world in which Delta Cygni has at least two asteroid belts) models of the imagined model which are all implicit in this sentence.

Science fiction is very information-rich in a specific way very different from the ways in which MF (poetry, history, ...) is information-rich.

Last example: In Stars in My Pockets like Grains of Sand , one finds the following lovely passage. We know that the protagonist and his lover, Rat, are entering a "run," a place where people go to seek sex; and that Rat is new to this world. They approach the door to the run:

The door deliquesced.

Cool against my thigh, chest, and face, mist from the sill-trough blew back as I lifted my foot over the -- "Hey, don't step in that!" I pushed up at Rat's shoulder --

His big foot came down with the heel a centimeter beyond the trough rim. he staggered around to face me, not looking surprised.

"You're supposed to step over . You yell at little kids for getting their feet wet in the door trough." I laughed. "Look..." as I stepped over.

The blue liquid, behind us now, began to foam; the foam rose, climbing at the jambs faster than in the middle; and darkening, and shutting out light as the door's semicrystals effloresced.

I don't even want to try to unpack for you all the information (you can see it for yourselves, you're experienced SF readers) implied in this short passage. I just want to point out that it's there , for the unpacking, and that only an experienced SF reader will be able to unpack it.

(Of course, the non-SF reader will also miss the Heinlein reference; but, like any good reference-planting, the sentence does its main work even if you do.)

So: If SF is a way of reading texts, then what is an "SF novel?" Simply: a novel which is written to be read in this way, which is written with a knowledge of the ways in which SF readers read, and whose words and sentences and events are designed to build the world-of-the-text in this way.

In this model, of course, Frankenstein is clearly not SF. Nor is anything Mr Wells or M Verne wrote SF; nor Poe, nor Cyrano, nor Kepler, nor Lucien, nor Dante... (Of the bunch, Dante comes closest; he uses the "knowns" of his time to build in the reader's mind a set of worlds. But, really, he isn't building new worlds, but exploring worlds his intended readers already "know" to exist.)

All, however, can be read profitably as SF -- that is, one can take to these texts the questions one takes to an SF text and have an interesting and pleasurable reading experience.

Oddly enough, this is true of a great deal of MF. (Try it with Charles Dickens sometime -- say, Oliver Twist or Great Expectations ; you'll come away with an image of a very alternate [and very strange] early-Victorian London.)

But none of our "proto-SF" novels is intended to be read this way, and to read them this way is to lose a great deal of what their writers had in mind. Whether what is gained instead is worth that loss is, of course, a highly individual matter.

Of course, there's nothing to keep one from reading the text twice...